Interesting Facts About Animal Psychology


Animals seem like they shouldn’t be that complicated. “Animalistic” is generally shorthand for being simplistic, if not savage. Yet there are shades to their mentality as varied as there are in human societies. There are also complexities and surprises in their relationship to humanity. Domesticated or feral, invertebrate or vertebrate, the animal kingdom is a quirkier one than you might expect in many respects. But it’s also saner than expected in others. 

10. Elusive Schizophrenia

Often mistaken for dissociative identity disorder, schizophrenia is when a person’s sensory processes are impaired in a way that causes them to receive inaccurate information about the world around them, often in the form of visual or auditory hallucinations. It’s not at all rare: Dr. Joel Dudley of Mount Sinai asserted that roughly 1% of adults suffer from it. But that’s seemingly only human adults, as schizophrenia has never been observed in animals despite thousands of studies that could have found it. 

Speculations as to why this is the case have gone in some fairly radical directions. The aforementioned Dr. Dudley proposed in 2015 that schizophrenia only has been observed in humans because it’s an outgrowth of evolution. As evidence the genes found in human accelerated regions (parts of the genetic code specific to humans) are connected to the genes which increase the likelihood of schizophrenia. As many people constantly enduring voices and visions will tell you, it would be enough to make a human envy other animals. 

9. Domestic Dementia

In the natural world, animals that live long enough to lose their teeth or grey their hair are uncommon. Animals that live long enough for alzheimers and equivalents are functionally unknown. The physical toll of living in nature doesn’t allow for animals that already have worn down teeth and hip problems to keep going after they lose significant amounts of memory and instinct. So you have to look to pets to see animals that live long enough to have this condition, which is common and studied enough in dogs to be formally known as canine cognitive dysfunction(CCD). Telling signs are changes in sleep patterns, unusual routes walking around the house, incontinence, aggression, and loss of interest in family members. 

Fortunately CCD is to a significant degree treatable. For one thing there’s feeding them foods rich in antioxidants and fatty acids instead of only generic kernels. For another, putting them in new environments, letting them socialize, and other forms of stimulation will keep their cognitive function. So it turns out it’s not only possible to teach an old dog new tricks, it’s neurologically responsible.  

8. Dogs and OCD

Speaking of dogs with disorders, they have the same obsessive compulsive disorders that humans do. One of the most common manifestations of this is dogs that excessively lick their paws. That might sound like a fairly harmless habit but has been known to leave dogs vulnerable to all sorts of bacterial infections in their paws. Constant chewing or sucking of blankets are also common OCD behaviors for dogs. 

In 2013, National Geographic published Purdue University findings that dogs with OCD responded the same way to medication for it that humans do. The dogs used for the study were doberman pinschers because a surprisingly high 28% of them have been found to suffer from OCD. This indicates that dogs will be very useful for testing new and improved treatments for OCD in humans, whether that feels ethical or not. 

7. Ending Pregnancies

One aspect of animal psychology we would assume is innate is for mothers to protect their offspring. Nature documentaries have numerous examples of this. Youtube has many videos of this which have received millions of views. After all, presumably any species where reproduction isn’t near the highest priority will go extinct pretty quickly. And yet there are a number of species where the females will completely override the initial reproductive instinct not for basic survival or any such reason, but because there’s a new male around. 

For example there’s the geladas, a primate in Ethiopia that lives in communities presided over by an alpha male. If another male kills that one, the females in the community have been observed to have an increase as much as forty times over in terms of miscarriages. Although first reported among geladas in 2012, this phenomenon was first reported as happening to mammals in 1959 by Dr. Hilda Bruce when she was observing a massive increase in mouse miscarriages when she put new male mice around pregnant females. As a result this natural miscarriage increase is known as the Bruce Effect, which must be one of the more dubious honors in the field of biology. 

6. Pet Cats: Apex Predators

Many, many people learned in 2013 from a viral comic by The Oatmeal that ostensibly domesticated cats are some of the biggest killers in the animal kingdom, even if they’re well fed. An estimated 100 million animals were killed by domestic cats in 2013 in the United Kingdom alone. It’s reached a point where pet cats have contributed to or been the primary cause of 63 animal extinctions. These are animals that the cats usually don’t even bother to eat, it’s just killing for its own sake.

Fortunately there are ways to deal with this that don’t involve all cat owners putting their pets under permanent house arrest. It wasn’t the initial official solution of putting bells on cats, which had no measurable impact on kill counts because cats were still able to hunt stealthily enough to avoid ringing them. In large part it was a matter of putting actual meat in with cat food that only consisted of cheap kernels and the like. Another solution was to give cats between five and ten minutes of play time that simulated the thrill of a hunt for the pets and seemed to get it out of their systems. Curiously, while playtime reduced the number of mammals pet cats killed it had no effect on the likelihood of them killing birds. However real meat made cats 42% less likely to kill birds but no less likely to kill mammals. We’ve all known pets that are picky eaters, but picky killers are a new insight.    

5. Amphibians and Light

Elaborate mutations in American frogs from industrial pollution first broke as a news story in 1995. Since the biological change that anthropogenic actions have wrought on frogs has only increased, such as how the pesticide atrazine had been found to change frog genders (famously misreported as the chemicals “turning the frogs gay.) It turns out humans haven’t only been waging accidental chemical warfare on frogs. There’ve also been massive psychological attacks purely through our outdoor lights. 

A study of 36 toads was conducted by French researchers which was published in Conversation Physiology in February 2019. It found that nocturnal toads were so thrown off by the presence of the artificial light thrown off by a street lamp or outdoor lighting for a business that it would affect their metabolism, oxygen intake, and activity because they were confused whether they should be in day or night mode. Lights bright enough to reach 20 lux (which is about a fifth of what’s considered safe lighting for a warehouse during work hours) could drop their levels of activity by roughly 75%, which could be deadly for amphibians or at the very least leave them undernourished for proper growth. Presumably night establishments don’t want to go out of business and transportation departments don’t want to massively increase traffic accidents to keep from confusing toads, but it is a concern for local ecosystems.  

4. Cow Eyes

Anyone who has seen the various videos online of cows being allowed out into fields after a winter inside knows just how delightfully expressive cows can be. There’s also just how wide their eyes get, hence the origin of the expression “cow eyes.” What we would associate with fear or surprise in human beings turns out to have an altogether different meaning for cows, though. It’s the face that they make when they’re happy. 

The process by which this was confirmed was not quick or easy. It took observations of 13 dairy cows over a two month period in 2015 by Helen S Proctor and Gemma Cardner for Elsevier Incorporated, along with 436 photos of their eyes. They found that when petted or given similar forms of positive attention, larger amounts of the whites of the cows’ eyes were visible, contrary to the default human assumption that it indicated distress. 44.8% of eye whites were determined to be visible on average during testing times for the cows, which seems an extremely precise measurement of the surface area on an eye for determining a cow’s emotional state. But you know what? It’s worth it to make sure Betsy’s happy.     

3. Emotional Insect Debate

It would seem fairly intuitive that insects don’t feel emotions for anyone with even a passing familiarity with their biology. Insects don’t even have brains as we understand them. They have ganglion, which are effectively small clusters of cells throughout their bodies that control specific sets of appendages. Without brains that contain emotional sectors, how could they experience them? 

One of the more revealing tests to this notion was conducted by the University of London. In 2016, they released findings for their colorful flower experiments. A sugary liquid was placed in blue-green flowers while yellow flowers had a much less sugar-concentrated liquid. Bees developed a habit of quickly flying to the blue-green flowers as a result. Even when similarly concentrated liquids were put in differently colored flowers, the bees were less conditioned to fly to those flowers for their sugar reward. But when given chemicals that blocked the flow of dopamine, the tendency disappeared, indicating that the anticipation of a reward left the bees less motivated and optimistic that they would receive the pleasure of a blue-green nectar. This strongly indicated that even survival instincts were not enough of a motivator without an emotional reward.  

2. Stressed Reptiles

Similarly to insects, there’s a common perception that reptiles must not experience emotions. Being “cold-blooded” is a shorthand for being apathetic. The truth is pretty close to the opposite. And it’s not a new discovery either. Psychology Today was reporting these findings back in 2013. 

For instance, Professor Gordon Burghardt of the University of Tennessee first published studies of reptile behavior in 1967. Among his findings were observations that young reptiles still performed the sort of “play” behavior that we would normally associate with mammals and the like. He further reported maternal instincts among reptile parents. Similarly reptile mothers were monitored by him exhibiting maternal instincts. 

Even more compelling were findings by the British Veterinary Association. In a report published to the British Medical Journal credited primarily to Clifford Warwick, they found that the stresses of being in captivity were both more universal among reptiles than mammals and that the effects were more extreme. They went beyond reptiles developing habits of hissing, hiding their heads, anorexia, and other behavioral issues. The sizes of their heads and bodies would change, and the very pigments of their skin would shift. If anything, emotional reactions to stress are too much of an issue for reptiles in captivity.  

1. Pets as Mental Health Aids

It’s often been said that pets are good for people’s health. For example there was a study released by the American Heart Association in 2019 which claimed that pet dogs lowered mortality rates among owners by 24% by motivating regular moderate exercise through walks. 

When it comes to mental health such as combatting depression, though, the results are hardly so conclusive or so encouraging.

In 2019, The Independent looked through thirty studies of the impact of pets on the states of mind for the owners. They came to an interesting but depressing conclusion: There was not significant evidence that pets helped owners deal with depression. In fact, five studies found that owners were more depressed than non-owners. Five might not sound like many, but it’s the same number that claimed pets helped stop or prevent depression. Turns out that as useful as they can be as a motivator, they are not confirmed as good for mental health tools. 

Follow Dustin Koski on Twitter to learn more about bizarre psychology, whether he means to teach it to you or not.

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